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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, December 9, 2005

Mayor wants to cut Waimea Valley deal

 •  Appraising valley won't be easy

By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Staff Writer

Mayor Mufi Hannemann yesterday vowed to negotiate an out-of-court settlement to preserve Waimea Valley rather than fight a court battle against landowner Attractions Hawaii a move that puzzles those who helped convince the City Council to unanimously reject an earlier settlement offer on Wednesday.

Hannemann said the city has been trying to preserve the valley since taking possession of it in 2002, but he said the array of political leaders, organizations, community groups and individuals hadn't come forward "with the passion and commitment that I've witnessed in the past several days."

After seeing the outpouring of support to preserve the scenic 1,875-acre North Shore valley, the Council reversed itself from a slim majority supporting a settlement that would have divided the valley and allowed limited development to a unanimous vote to reject the offer from Christian Wolffer, Attractions Hawaii chief executive officer and one of the primary owners.

Council members said beyond the community sentiment, they were impressed with the offers of support from the National Audubon Society, the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, state lawmakers and others who have the resources to help pay to preserve the valley.

Hannemann said he still wants to negotiate a settlement rather than prepare to go to court the week of Feb. 13.

"I think there is too much at risk for the city and all parties to let the courts decide (how much the city must pay for the land)," Hannemann said. "What if that cost is so astronomical we just can't afford it?"

Hannemann said he's worried that the city can't finance what a court might rule is the fair market value for the property. And those who said they would support the preservation might fade, he said.

"Now is the time to show me the money. Let's get serious," he said yesterday at a news conference at the Honolulu Zoo, where he also greeted the zoo's latest resident, Violet the orangutan.

DISAPPOINTMENT

Scott Foster, a founding member of the preservation group Stewards of Waimea Valley, said he was disappointed to hear the mayor say he's trying to settle the case out of court.

Foster said attorney James Case, one of the state's leading experts on condemnation, told the Council on Wednesday that the valley's fate can best be decided in court by a jury that will set a fair price, one that's affordable to taxpayers.

"We welcome the mayor's involvement but he needs to review the latest findings," Foster said.

Wolffer attorney William McCorriston said he's ready to negotiate with Hannemann but is also prepared to go to court to make the case that his client should be paid the $18.2 million land value plus damages.

McCorriston said Wolffer would rather get the land back and have the city end its condemnation effort but that Wolffer had agreed to a compromise settlement after the city maintained there was not enough money available to pay the land value. "We never discussed the dollar value because they didn't have any money," McCorriston said.

McCorriston said he's cautious about expecting a solution to come together easily after his client tried for a year to mediate with the city and then tried it a new way with the Council deal. "It ended up in a dead end after a lot of energy, resources and time," he said.

McCorriston remains skeptical that the financial backing is available to settle the legal dispute. "I heard the passion, but not the commitment," he said of the lengthy Council meeting.

CULTURAL TREASURE

The valley is renowned for its history, rare and endangered plants, and cultural significance. Council Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz, who represents the North Shore, said he feels there is strong support for taking the matter to court.

When he heard that Hannemann feels the city's best case is in negotiating another out-of-court settlement, Dela Cruz said: "I guess the mayor wasn't listening." He was referring to the six dozen community speakers who urged the Council at Wednesday's marathon meeting not to settle and go to court.

Dela Cruz said he is confident of the commitments made at that meeting by the Audubon Society, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the Department of Land and Natural Resources and other individuals and organizations to work together to acquire, protect and preserve the valley.

Dela Cruz isn't rejecting the possibility of working out a solution. "I mean the city obviously has a case. But I think the strength comes from the partnership," Dela Cruz said. He noted that attorney Case has offered his expertise.

"If Christian Wolffer is willing to come to the table and offer a reasonable price, I guess I don't disagree with the mayor," he said.

ANTI-DEVELOPMENT

National Audubon Society President John Flicker told the Council on Wednesday that everybody is in agreement that the valley should not be developed and that the valley should be acquired as cheaply as possible.

"We've got a very shrewd developer who's come in here and put an offer on the table that's dividing us," he said. "Why are we letting him divide us? We're all in agreement here."

Flicker said Wolffer has not had to pay anything on the land since 2001 and was bluffing about damages.

But McCorriston fired back: "My belief is that they're going to get their lunch on damages, and I hope Mr. Flicker has to eat part of it. We have compelling evidence that the city started a program of marketing the fact that they were going to condemn the land to purposely suppress the price."

McCorriston said he was so irritated by Flicker's comments that he wouldn't negotiate with him. But Hannemann said he can serve as the go-between to bring people together as he has done on the transit tax and on other issues.

Both sides say they're glad the case would be decided by a jury. "I'm glad we have a jury. If the city had not requested one, I would have," McCorriston said. "I have found juries to be very fair and very competent."

OHA'S POSITION

Office of Hawaiian Affairs Trustee John D. Waihe'e IV, a key supporter of preserving the valley, said there is consensus from the rest of the trustees to soon take an official position in favor of acquiring Waimea Valley.

He noted that OHA had already discussed coming up with $6 million and could find more money if needed.

He can't fathom the estimates of more than $30 million for the conservation land that some have floated. "I think that's kind of absurd. I don't think it would be that at all," he said.

If the city went to court and a jury determined the value to be more than what the city was willing to pay, he believes OHA would not simply let the land revert to Wolffer. "There's no way we would just let that happen," Waihe'e said.

Reach Robbie Dingeman at rdingeman@honoluluadvertiser.com.